There was the Black model whose hair was burned by a stylist. The nonbinary model who was asked to walk a runway as a man. Just for starters.
Fran Dunaway, the founder of the Seattle-based clothing line TomboyX, has heard those stories, and more.
“Every model I have spoken to has been able to talk about situations where they felt uncomfortable, but were unable to voice anything because they want to work,” Dunaway said.
So, earlier this month, the brand launched a protocol — a set of rules — that gives models a voice in what they will do and how they expect to be treated by brands on a photo or commercial set.
The pre-production questionaire allows models to make clear the pronouns with which they want to be addressed, whether they have accessibility needs or any sort of triggers. It even covers fragrance sensitivities.
The protocol includes having an on-set advocate to serve as a go-between and a monitor. The advocate will be intersectional, which means that they have a combination of race, class and sexual identities that allow them to be well-versed in the models’ needs and concerns.
The protocol is given to the brand after the model is cast, and is aimed at helping the brand make clothing, makeup and production choices for the models, and head off any problems.
“In this ever-changing world of gender expression, we were interested in establishing a protocol that ensures everyone feels safe and confident,” Dunaway said. “We want them to feel comfortable in their own skin, and in how they are being treated or asked to present.”
The protocol — written with the input of some of the brand’s Black, transgender and plus-sized models — was launched this month on IGTV, and has already received the attention of Women’s Wear Daily. Dunaway welcomes other fashion brands to adopt it.
“The response has been overwhelmingly powerful and positive,” Dunaway said. “People are grateful to be seen and heard, and to understand how modeling and expression is fluid.”
Rain Dove, a model who starred in the company’s first commercial, helped review the protocol.
Dove identifies as genderless and was once asked to model as a trans man. A brand Dove described as “explorative” asked the model to stand on a box in the middle of a concert wearing pasties and a sex toy around the neck.
“Brands are ignoring the needs of the people whose bodies they are using to sell their products,” Dove said.
Still, Dove understands that modeling is a job.
“You can’t complain about what you wear, you’re a model,” Dove said. “But on set, there are things that are said that aren’t OK. They will use all the wrong pronouns, or a Black model will show up with a weave that no one knows how to work with.
“These seem like small little details, but they can make a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes we won’t get a shoot that can fully cater to us, but it’s important to try.”
The protocol was reviewed by a plus-sized model, a curve model who is pansexual, a leader from Justice for Black Lives and a transgender model named Rose Montoya.
“I have been asked to throw flour in the air, take off my top, wear a bathing suit in the winter,” said Montoya, who identifies as Latinx. “There are uncomfortable things that you are asked to do, and that’s one thing. You have to do what you’re told.
“But when it comes to my identity,” she continued, “when I am asked to present myself in a masculine light, then maybe I have declined the job and walked away.”
Montoya was the one to suggest that the protocol include an after-shoot questionaire to give brands and their crews feedback.
“I wish more places would accept this into their everyday practices,” Montoya said of the protocol, “and not just in the modeling world. Doctor’s offices, schools and every job.”
“Modeling for me is affirming and empowering, but it also sends a message out to baby transpeople that you are worthy, can have success and happiness and there is beautiful future out there waiting for you,” she said.
TomboyX was founded seven years ago by Dunaway and her wife, Naomi Gonzalez, with the goal of producing a button-up shirt for women in the style of a men’s designer like Ben Sherman.
“A defined quality with fun details around the collar and the cuff,” Dunaway remembered. “A long-sleeved dress shirt with character and quality.”
Once launched, though, the company found its niche in underwear and was the first brand to produce boxer briefs for women, and now nonbinary and transgender clients.
The company is growing right along with the conversation about gender and how it plays into our everyday lives, Dunaway said.
“Newer generations are teaching us all about the spectrum of gender,” she said. “I think it’s an important step for us going forward. And if the entire industry did this, it would be an entirely different thing.”
Said Dove: “We’re in a complicated time and it needs to be a give and take relationship. It’s one thing to demand change and it’s another to create a possibility for it to occur. We’re giving brands a pathway to be better.”